Published January 13, 2010

Päivi Antikainen: Values in the information society

Recent discussion on the information society has been heated. Assessments of the state of the Finnish information society have been quite unanimous, even though the voice of the commercial sector has been the loudest.

Recent discussion on the information society has been heated. Assessments of the state of the Finnish information society have been quite unanimous, even though the voice of the commercial sector has been the loudest. ”If we don’t get our act together, we will fall behind in development.” Self-criticism is our national virtue, and we won’t resort to sentimentality when it comes to our strengths. Quite a few committees have come to the conclusion that the term ‘information society’ itself is outdated. But coming up with a new expression for global change saturated by technological advancement has proved difficult. Precisely this difficulty testifies to the scale of the change.  

When our society shifted from an agrarian society into an industrial one, the first steps were difficult. Though not an expert on this subject, I can imagine that the first people to start talking about industrialisation were not those with the most traditional ways of life. It is difficult to put the words “production structures of the industrial society” into the mouth of a farm owner’s wife of that time, even though the concern of getting by with the same means as in the past had started to grow. A new thing doesn’t have a name until given one.

Recent discussions on the information society have been focused mainly on the digitalisation of public administration and development of its electronic services. The need for corporate steering has been advocated to increase compatible solutions, eliminate redundant development and, most importantly, improve productivity. And rightly so, because these issue are important in the increasingly aging north.

Most people familiar with the subject have, for some time already, supported stronger management of change – also in the public sector. Corporate steering of public administration can be efficient, as long as it has clear boundaries and it is implemented with expertise. The risks of corporate steering also have to be identified. It must not become drag on development. Those who have motivation, vision and expertise must have a chance to spearhead development.

One proposed solution for the problem of the term “information society” has been to leave out the word “information” altogether and use only the word “society”. The information society is indeed already ubiquitous. But if we only use the word society, how can we describe the changing world to those who do not believe in the profound change that technology has had on our ways of acting, working and communicating? So far we have only witnessed the prelude to technological development.

On the other hand, we should use the word “information”, because the flow of information – or lack of it – is a key issue for our nation in global competition. We should finally understand that information, in addition to broadband, is an essential part of the infrastructure of the information society, and one of the most important forms of human capital. We can only succeed by having and sharing information.

In particular, information produced with public funding should be openly accessible and almost free of charge. Public databanks, such as registers, maps, archives and statistics have huge innovation potential that Finland cannot afford to leave unutilised. Change requires investments. That is the way it is.

However, this is not the full picture of the information society. Something is missing. The human being is missing. We have been repeatedly criticised for being too technologically oriented. At least now we talk about utilising technology, open innovation and user centricity. However, the question is: Why and for whom? Even technology developers have started to promote value-based development.

Now it becomes difficult – or very easy. When developing the information society we should ask ourselves what we want. The individual citizen is not interested in competitiveness or productivity. Regardless of the fact that well-being is not in contradiction with them. On the contrary, they are two sides of the same coin. One of the biggest challenges for our society is to learn to utilise technology so that it serves the everyday life, inclusion, creativity and well-being of its citizens. These are matters that are also required for our national competitiveness.

Therefore, we have to talk about equality, preventing alienation, climate warming, communality, prerequisites for learning, new developments in civic activities and so on. We also have to talk about children, changes in working life, entrepreneurship education, the needs of the elderly and health care. It is a shame if public discussion on the information society becomes one-sided. There is also the danger of being lulled into believing that the corrective actions taken today will keep us in the forefront of development in the future.

The technologies of today as well as tomorrow hold many opportunities. Realising this potential requires that the information society mindset become mainstream. It also demands a more intimate relationship between information society and innovation politics. And this requires that we see the information society as it is, or rather as we hope it to be in the future.

Päivi Antikainen